Category Archives: Gregory Hedger

Dr. Gregory Hedger has been the Director of the International School Yangon, in Myanmar, since 2016. A native of Minnesota, Greg has served in education for over 25 years, including 13 years in the role of School Director at Cayman International School, Qatar Academy, and most recently as Superintendent at Escuela Campo Alegre in Venezuela. Greg promotes international education through his past and/or present service on the boards of AAIE, AASSA, and his work with the International Task Force for Child Protection, his contributions to various periodicals, and his work to promote the next generation of leaders through workshops and teaching. Greg’s family includes his wife Kirstin, daughters Kaija, Sadie, and Anna, and son Max.

“You don’t understand, Dad, your skin is white!”

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Like many international school educators, I have found myself confined to a distant country during this period of the COVID-19 pandemic.  In my case, Myanmar, where borders have closed, flights into the country have ceased to exist, and departures are limited to relief flights organized by embassies and INGOs for people not anticipating a return in the short term.  As a result, I’ve watched from afar the recent protests and demonstrations that have rocked my home country, the United States, in recent days.  Each morning, I wake up to notifications on my smart phone telling the story of unrest that has spread across the country, and then the globe, as we begin to grapple with the soul searching sparked by the gruesome death recorded for us all to see of a black man at the hands of a police officer on a previously unknown corner of a street in South Minneapolis.

The needless death that appeared in that video held a particular poignancy for me.  Watching it, I realized I recognized the location where it took place.  It was just over a block away from where I had lived for several years.  It was just a few blocks north of the elementary school I had attended as a child, and little more than a mile north of where I had lived for five years when I was growing up.  It hit home for me, and, like I imagine it did for many others, has caused me to look inward, to re-examine some of my own experiences and ideals, and to question my own beliefs about myself and my perspectives as a white person, a white man in this world.

People who know me are aware that several years ago my family took in a nine-year-old street boy who had been living on the streets of Yangon.  Through a series of circumstances, I brought him home one day with the intention of helping him out and providing him a sort of safe harbor he could make use of as needed.  Instead, he stayed, and over time we gradually made the decision to adopt him into our family.  When he first joined us, we were surprised how quickly and how easily he seemed to fit right into our lives.  He became a part of everything we did, and seemed to thrive on the time he spent with us.  Early on, we bought him a bike.  He wasn’t attending school at first, so would ride that bike to the school where we worked every morning to have lunch with me, and then return home for the afternoon to wait for our return.  We would spend the afternoons and weekends engaged in play.  We would swim in our pool, where he would climb on my shoulders to dive into the water and swim to the other side.  Some days, we would go on long bike rides through the city, dodging the traffic, and stopping to explore the zoo, the local markets, or sites known to him from his days on the streets.  At other times, we ran around the yard, hiding out on the roof top, or in the garage, shooting at each other with nerf guns.  There were games of basketball and one-on-one soccer.  He has a great love of fishing, and we would often go fishing in Yangon, and later in Minnesota where we go for the summer.  In all fairness, I should say he went fishing.  I spent most of my time unraveling incessant knots in the line, or getting his hook loose from the rocks and weeds in the water.  In every way, this small boy who had at one point seemed to have an incredibly rough exterior became a member of our family, fitting in alongside our other three children.  We grew to love him, and guided him as he began to navigate many of the same kinds of challenges we experienced with our other children – homework, making friends, keeping his room clean, household chores, and contributing as a member of our family.

As my son grew older, his interests began to change, as they do with kids.  He began to exert a level of independence.  He no longer was as interested in hanging out with dad.  He would go off with friends on his bike.  He discovered malls, arcades, and laser tag, venturing to these sites with friends, and began to pay closer attention to how he was perceived by others.  We witnessed a change in his dress and his social interactions, and his smartphone became a permanent appendage.  The most noticeable difference for me as this was happening was the gradual lack of desire to be seen with us.  I think I felt it most as I seemed to go from being the center of his world, to suddenly being a bystander watching his world go by. 

I believed that what my son was experiencing was the normal maturing process children go through as they get older.  I understood this and excepted it, but there was a part of me that missed the way he had been when he was younger.  I would often joke with him, asking if he was sure he didn’t want me to hang out with him and his friends.  He would respond jokingly, and with a fun sense of humor.  At one point though, I became a bit serious, reminding him of how much he used to want me around, and I asked what had changed.  He grew very serious as well.  Looking at me, he stated, “you don’t understand, dad, your skin is white.”

I was completely surprised by this statement.  My surprise was partially because the statement was so unexpected.  I had never really thought of him in terms of skin color or of ethnicity.  He was simply my son and a member of our family.  Clearly, it was something he was thinking of though, and was somehow playing into his need for independence and desire to do things that didn’t include us.  I was surprised for another reason though.  I had always considered myself fairly enlightened and open minded when it came to race.  As a child, my family had specifically moved to a neighborhood where the first schools were being integrated through bussing so my sister and I could attend school there.  Growing up, I had many friends of color, and believed I was sensitive to the challenges they had experienced.  As an adult, I had worked for a while with children from multi-racial backgrounds, and my wife and I had specifically chosen careers that exposed us to a myriad of different races and cultures.  Really, how could my son now say that I didn’t understand him because of the color of my skin?

Slowly, though, I began to realize that this was the issue.  Yes, I had been exposed to others and had integrated with others, but I couldn’t understand them.  I couldn’t understand because I can never experience things from their perspective.  From this short statement my son had made, I began to look at things differently.  I began to realize that I don’t fully understand what it is like to be him, I can’t understand, and in reality, I never will.  To be honest, any contradictory thinking on my part just isn’t reality as he has a set of life experiences and perspectives that are beyond my ability to fully comprehend.  However, I began to realize there are things I can do.  Since that time, I have come to realize the importance of listening, and truly hearing him as he expresses his personal perspective.  I have come to realize the importance of making sure he knows we appreciate his perspective, and that we value his experience.  I have come to accept that when he says he doesn’t want me around, it isn’t about me, it is about him needing to be him and needing to feel comfortable being himself. 

As I adhere to the current orders to stay at home during these difficult times and watch the scenes of protest unfold around the world, in the U.S., and in my old neighborhood, I can’t help but think about what is happening in relationship to what I have learned from my son.  As a white man, I can’t ever fully understand the challenges people of color face every day in this world.  To pretend that I can is not being honest.  I can listen though, I can appreciate the sacrifices others are making and the experiences that have brought them to this point, and I can make sure I value those experiences.  As an educator and as a fellow human being, I need to be committed to this.  These are things we need to do if we are going to begin to see change result from the events unfolding around us.  I really believe that this is the first step.

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

Been There Done That: leadership of a smaller school

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Been There Done That: leadership of a smaller school

The 2003 – 04 school year found me finishing up a four-year stint as head of a small start up school in Grand Cayman.  Having gone from 90 students to 300 during that period, I found myself wanting to make the leap from the challenges that came from counting success based on each individual new admission, to the relative stability of a larger school.  In doing this, I was a bit caught off guard by the assumptions made during the interview process of what was involved in running a small school.  There seemed to be a perception it was some sort of holiday in comparison to running a larger school.  Throw in the location of the school I was coming from, well, let’s just say it seemed some people thought I had been doing nothing more than working on my tan.

The assumptions I’m speaking of were painfully obvious from the questions I received. While I was prepared for questions about my leadership style, educational philosophy, beliefs about the role of technology in learning, and the IB, and was certainly asked some of these, the majority of questioning seemed to pursue a different vain.  It didn’t matter if I was being questioned by parents, board members, faculty, or even other heads, the most often asked questions were things like, “What makes you think you are ready for a larger school?” or, “What makes you think you can handle a school that is so much bigger than the one you are at?”  My personal favorite went something like this, “Do you think you’re ready for the extra workload that comes with being head of a larger school?”

Answering these questions always required taking a deep breath and maintaining a level of diplomacy.  I was seeking employment after all, and responding with some sarcastic crack wouldn’t do me any favors.  Still, I felt like asking how familiar their current head was with the inner workings of the actual running of the school.  When was the last time their head had fixed an over flowing toilet, or painted a hallway wall?  Was their head one of the designated bus drivers for school trips?  When was the last time they spent a weekend with two parents to build the play structure on the playground, laid the gravel in the parking lot, or applied bandages to hurt students?  These were all things I was familiar with as head of a small school, and were of course happening while keeping the books, leading the curriculum review, overseeing the ordering of supplies, setting up and hosting parent events, leading the accreditation process, reading to students, and supervising the playground during recess, not to mention a long list of other tasks usually shared amongst a group of people in larger schools.  To all of these things, I could easily raise my hand in the affirmative.  Yep, been there, done that!  I was aching to ask if their current head could say the same.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind being head of a small school is the best training ground there is for truly understanding the operations and inner workings of a school. I remember early on in my tenure at this smaller school a heavy rainfall revealed several leaks in the roof of the building.  Buckets were set out at key locations to catch the chronic dripping.  The first spell of dry days saw the only member of the maintenance staff and I on the rooftop with brooms and hot tar laying a new roof.  The next time it rained, we waited anxiously to discover if our hard work had paid off and learning could continue in a dry environment.  Similarly, a broken water pipe one year found me working side by side with the same maintenance guy mopping the floors, and then replacing a pipe that had rusted away.

Probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had as a school head occurred at this same school when Grand Cayman was hit by Hurricane Ivan, a category 5 hurricane, in 2004.  The island was wiped out, and all schools on the island were shut down due to the level of damage.  The maintenance guy and I stayed on the island, recruited a group of workers, and supervised the renovations and repairs to the school.  This permitted me to engage in almost every aspect of the school as we worked for almost three months to get the school ready to welcome students back.  I felt a sense of pride when those students returned to a warm and caring school environment.  There was something else I felt as well, it was like I had a sense of every part of the school, what tools we had, where everything was stored, and what was needed to keep every part of the school running.  I had a sense being head of the school meant understanding how every aspect of the school worked.

In my career so far, I’ve been head of four different schools.  That school in Grand Cayman was the smallest.  A school of 1800 was the largest.  The other two were in between.  Every school has required a different skill set, and I’ve learned the importance of being able to observe, listen, and adapt to what is needed.  I can honestly say though the best education I every received in learning how a school runs was through serving as a small school head.  It gave me the ability to understand, and appreciate the different roles we all play in providing a quality education for the students in our care and in running a successful school program.

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

The honking of the horn: a tale of cultural differences

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The honking of the horn: a tale of cultural differences

I had an interesting experience this past summer while home in Minnesota.  I was parked at a Caribou Coffee – the northern Midwest’s attempt to ward off the cultural dominance of Starbucks.  I happened to look in my rearview mirror and noticed another car quickly backing up on a track that would lead to a collision with my rear end in a matter of seconds.  It seemed clear the other driver had no idea I was there.  I quickly honked my car horn to give warning, and watched his break lights come on, avoiding a collision by mere centimeters.  At that moment, the driver of the car turned in his seat, glared at me, and flipped me the bird, shaking his fist aggressively.  I looked at him in shock.  What was that all about?  Hadn’t I just saved him from damaging my car and his, not to mention the probable increase in auto insurance rates he would have acquired had he hit me?  He pulled his car forward, and reversed again on a track that avoided my car.  Then, to add insult to injury, as he now moved forward to exit the parking lot, the woman in the passenger seat turned toward me and also flipped me the bird.  What the heck was going on?

Driving home, I thought about what I had just experienced, and compared it to our home overseas in Myanmar.  It seemed that in the experience I just had, the driver of the other car interpreted my use of the car horn as some sort of a hostile act.  While I presumed I was providing a service by helping him avoid a collision, he seemed to see the horn as some sort of affront, as though I was using it to point out how wrong he was or some discrepancy in his character.  In Myanmar, the use of a car horn is interpreted entirely different, if interpreted at all.  By this I mean, people make use of the horn so much, it often goes unnoticed.  It wasn’t too many years ago there was hardly a car on the streets on Myanmar.  People could drive from one end of the city to the other without hindrance.  Overnight, it seems everyone has acquired a car.  The infrastructure has not been able to keep up.  There are constant traffic jams and little fender benders.  The sound of a car horn honking has become so common it blends into the background.  I think I even fall asleep at night on occasion to the sound of car horns in the distance.  The honking of car horns has become so common that I find if I am driving down the road, see a friend walking or driving, and honk to greet them, they don’t even look up.  My horn isn’t even acknowledged with a simple nod of the head, let alone a greeting in response.

I began to think how different the car horn is perceived in different locations or cultures.  Another place we lived – was it the Cayman Islands or the oil camp on Sumatra – you hardly ever heard a car horn.  Really, the only time it was ever used for was in greeting.  If you heard one, you knew it was likely someone you knew saying hello and your hand immediately went up in a wave before you even identified the driver.  In contrast was the highways of Romania where people would lay on the horn as they sped into one side of the village and didn’t let up until they exited the other side, letting people on foot know to beware.  This eventually led to signs at the entrance to some of these villages with an X over a horn.  Clearly, the expectation was the cars needed to slow down, rather than use the horn, to maintain safety.  I’m not sure how successful this endeavor was.

So, I guess we could formulate a question around these experiences asking what does the honking of the car horn tell us about behavior within different culture?  Can any statement be made, or assumptions about the way different cultures are perceived?  I once read an ethnographic study about Myanmar called, The Traffic in Hierarchy by Ward Keeler.  In this study, Keeler observes the perceived relational hierarchy in Myanmar and how it plays out in everything from societal norms to traffic patterns and in how people drive cars and cross the street.  As I reflect on this study, I think one can easily assume that in Myanmar hierarchy may also play a cultural role in when people do, or do not use the car horn.  This led me to wonder what it is that plays a role in the honking of a horn in other countries, and how this simple act reflects our own perceptions of who we are and how we see ourselves within our own culture? 

Recently, my friend and colleague, Cameron Janzen, led a workshop on cultural understanding.  In this workshop, he discussed core cultural values, or those values that are a part of our cultural perspective we are unwilling, or unable to change.  An example of this would be someone who’s religion forbids them from drinking alcohol.  For that person, this might be a core value.  On the other hand are flex values.  These are values we are willing to change to help us be more understanding and accepting of another culture.  As I applied this to the honking of the horn in different countries, I realized that in some places, the horn itself may be symbolic of deeper core values.  For example, in Myanmar, it may reflect some deeper core values around hierarchy.  At the same time, for me, the honking of the horn is a flex value, something I’m willing to change and adapt to from culture to culture, or country to country.  I guess, the honking of the horn could be a truly symbolic reflection of our cultural differences and our willingness to understand others.  At the same time, I guess it is also possible I’m just reading too much into it.  Perhaps, the honking of the horn is really nothing more than an obnoxious loud noise eliciting an abrasive response no matter where we happen to be…..

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

Reframing The Lens

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Reframing the Lens

We go home to Minnesota every summer.  We have a cabin on a lake.  Really, in Minnesota, who doesn’t have a cabin on the lake, after all, it is the land of 10,000 lakes.  You can’t drive for ten minutes without running into another lake.  In our case, our cabin is in Northern Minnesota on land that has been in my wife’s family for four generations, if you include our children’s generation.  It was homesteaded by her grandfather about a century ago.  For a long time, the area remained very pristine.    I remember when we were first married, we would go to the cabin and look out over the lake.  There was no one there.  One whole side of the lake was government property.  One side was owned by the descendants of other homesteaders who had lost interest in the place decades before.  There was only one other cabin, on the far side of the lake, over two miles away, owned by the author of children’s books who made an occasional foray to this remote location.  A small river flowed from the lake and was home to one other cabin where an 80-year-old bush pilot lived surviving off of canned soups, Winston cigarettes, and coffee that he only mixed with brown sugar – the secret to a long life he once told me.  The entire region was similar.  Many old timers fondly recalled the old days when people logged, trapped, and lived off the land.  If one took time to listen, there were stories to be heard about the people who had settled in this area and were remembered by many still living at the time.  You could hear an appreciation for the land, the challenges it offered, and the respect held for those who had struggled to make it their home.

When my wife and I went overseas to teach in the early ‘90’s, we would return for a visit to this cabin each summer.  There was something almost magical about returning from our overseas life each year to a place that seemed to be sitting still, content in the daily challenges’ life had to offer, and at peace with both the hardships of grueling winters, and melancholy evenings of summers on a lake.  Each summer, when we returned, there were reports that one person had passed away, or another, as the older generation who were the history of the region began to move on.  I barely knew many of these people, but for my wife and her family, they represented a slow change in a place they once knew and felt intimately about.  A place that represented a way of life that was a part of their fabric, their memories, and who they are.

One summer, we returned, and it seemed everything had changed.  Gradually, some “city slicker,” as he had been described to me, had been buying up the properties on the side of the lake that had been homesteaded by various people.  He now owned all of that side of the lake and had moved forward with a development project subdividing the properties into lots.   These lots were not cheap, and were largely purchased by what can be described as the “upper crust,” people from large cities looking to buy into a piece of “paradise” spending occasional holiday time in the large lake homes they built.  Fortunately, they tended to be a good bunch of folks, building their homes off the lake and developing covenants that respected the land, the lake, and the people of the area.  There is no doubt they introduced a new demographic though, and it is from this the true purpose of this piece is derived.

We’ve slowly come to know some of the new folks on the lake.  During the summer, we will occasionally see them and wave, exchange pleasantries, even get together for an occasional coffee and light meal.  It was during one of these get togethers one of these folks described her experience volunteering at a community center in one of the local townships.  She had been helping out with a day camp there, and made a comment about how difficult life is for these kids and how little they had.  I didn’t say anything at the time, but I found her comment a bit curious.  I had been coming to this area for years, even before I had met my wife.  I had always kind of envied the folks here, and the lives many of the kids lived.  It was true, life is hard in that area of Minnesota, especially in the winter, and the folks who live there have to be hardy.  Kids living there often have to pitch in chopping wood, working in gardens, and helping out in ways we don’t see in the cities anymore.  They don’t have access to a lot of the junk food found in the cities, and, in many cases, lack reliable access to the internet, mobile phone service, and even electricity. That said, those same kids run around in the woods, hunt, fish, and seem to spend more quality time with family than I usually see in families from other economic demographic groups.  Yes, life is hard there, but there are benefits as well, and I think the benefits are worth the hardships for many people.

This whole experience got me thinking about my good friend, Linda, who unfortunately passed away from cancer a few months ago.  At one point she and I were talking, and she described to me an experience she had traveling through rural Myanmar with a friend of hers.  While traveling, they came across kids running around barefoot, kids working in rice paddies, kids looking after younger siblings, and kids walking along the sides of roads to get from one place to another.  At one point, the friend commented on how sad it was to see kids living like this.  Linda told me, “you know, it was strange, but I saw the situation differently.  I saw kids having the freedom to run around without shoes and feel the earth beneath their feet.  I saw kids who had a sense of pride contributing to their families and helping out.  I saw kids who were able to really experience life.  I wasn’t quite sure what was so sad about it.”

These experiences have caused me to think about how we tend to observe and interpret other cultures.  It seems we often approach other cultures with a bit of a deficit mentality.  We assume others must want what we have, and therefor are suffering if they don’t have it.  We’ve come across that in our own family.  A few years ago, we took in a nine-year-old street boy, whom we were eventually given guardianship of.  At the time we took him in, he had never worn a pair of shoes in his life.  He was used to sleeping under bridges and benches, in culverts, and in parks.  He ran with a group of other street kids whom he could sometimes trust, and at other times feared.  When we took him in, we perceived ourselves doing a great thing, and saw ourselves as really making a difference in this boy’s life.  I don’t want to say we haven’t made a difference.  I think he is definitely better off with us, and is certainly happy.  He is having experiences he would never have had before.  In fact, while I write this he is in China participating in a soccer tournament, a game he has proven quite skilled at.  From time to time, we talk about his life before he came to us.  I remember the first time he talked to me about his life on the streets.  His English was just developing, but he was able to clearly articulate for me his perception of life there.  It wasn’t the terrible life I was expecting to hear about.  Instead, he talked about what it was like hanging with a group of boys who looked after each other, knowing they were there for him if anyone else wanted to hurt him.  He talked about the different shops he used to go to for handouts of food, the things he did for fun, the excitement of experiencing holiday celebrations on the streets, and the relationships he had with everyone from the police to the bus drivers.  In many ways, what he described to me sounded a bit Huck Finnish, and I realized I had only been viewing his past through my own perceptual lens.  When I reframed my lens, I really began to understand what life had been like for him.  Yes, his life had been hard, and there had been people who hurt him and took advantage of him, but his perception of those experiences was not the same as mine.  Many people have commented to us over time on how well adjusted our son is considering what he has come from.  We’re very proud of him, but we’re also very cognizant of the fact that he is who he is because of his experiences and because of how he has perceived them.  We’re very careful not to make him ashamed of what he has come from, and we try very hard to listen and hear how he sees himself.

The discussion we had with our neighbor at the lake this past summer really set me on a path of reflection.  My wife and I are in our 28th year as international educators.  There is no doubt in my mind that when we first went overseas we viewed things from a deficit perspective.  I think this has changed for me though.  I’ve come to appreciate and respect differences, and understand the way we do things is not always best.  Whether I’m in Minnesota, Myanmar, or some other country, there is so much to learn and appreciate.  I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to engage with so much of it.

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

What’s the hurry? What I’ve come to believe about change

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What’s the hurry?    What I’ve come to believe about change

I consider myself to be an agent of change.  I’m in my forth headship in 17 years.  In each of these positions, I’ve approached them with the firm belief and personal understanding my role is to advocate and initiate change.  This is partially due to the life cycle existing in schools.  It is my opinion schools have a life cycle.  This life cycle is determined by different factors whether it is the age of the school, financial considerations, political factors outside the school, community demographics, or other factors.  At different points in the cycle, a school needs different leaders with different skill sets to move the school along until it reaches the next phase.  When I come into a school, I try to be very clear about my skill set and the change I will initiate.  If hired, I believe it is because it is perceived what I bring to the school is a match for where the school is at in its life cycle.  The other reason I see myself as an agent of change is because I believe we have a responsibility as educators to always do everything we can to provide the very best education possible for our students.  I believe it was Michael Fullan who made the point a school that isn’t changing isn’t learning.  I sincerely believe this.  We need to be constantly setting our sites on what is best for students, and continually evolve and change to accomplish that.

So, what have I learned about change?  I think the most important thing I’ve learned is change is a process, it doesn’t create immediate results.  This process is difficult in schools, especially international schools, where there is constant turnover in students, faculty, board members, and others.  There is a tendency to anticipate immediate results.  In my current school, The International School Yangon (ISY), we began a process of change aimed at environmental sustainability.  We were still in the discussion stage when many people were already expecting to see a difference.  I’ll never forget during a school event during this time hearing a comment, “here we’ve been taking about doing something different about the environment, yet all I see is the same old thing.”  Michael Fullan (2013) tells us we need to look at three-year trends.  From the time a change is initiated, it takes three years to really see a difference.  Kotter (2011) indicates it is important people notice some improvement in 12 – 24 months, but the reality is it will take at least three years before a change is fully realized.  He describes the expectation of results too soon as being one of the challenges of successful change efforts.  For my part, I see a cycle of change that is generally four years.  My experience has been I spend the first year in a school learning about what we need to do to build on what we are doing well, and identify what we could be doing better.  The second year is about building buy in, whether that is through strategic planning, a SWOT process, professional development, or the use of a consultant.  Ultimately, there needs to be a base of people supporting change, and a plan created for moving forward.  The third year is a key one.  This is the year change really begins to take hold in a school.  It becomes clearly visible, and a sense of urgency develops.  This is also a time when turnover begins to occur and key people might move on, meaning there is a need to maintain the focus and bring others along.  In a sense then, this year is about momentum and focus.  Year four is the year we begin to realize results.  The work that has gone into change begins to see its rewards.  In a sense, a new system has come into place.  Then, in years four and year five, we begin to fine tune, look for ways to improve, and look for new changes to initiate as a part of that constant cycle of school improvement.

Change is not easy, and it is not without conflict.  Heifetz and Linsky (2011) tell us conflict is a necessary part of change.  One conflict is a result of a feeling things are moving too fast, the pace of change is too quick.  In fact, when it comes to change, I’ve often been asked, “What’s the hurry?  Why are we moving so quickly?” I would argue change is never too fast.  In international schools, it is an absolute necessity we move quickly due to the constant turnover that takes place in the school community.  We need to take advantage of those who feel ownership over a change effort.  While we try to build that ownership in new folks, it is never quite the same.  Beyond that, if we really believe the change we are pursuing is meaningful for student learning, then it needs to be pursued at a rapid pace so all students can benefit.  Kotter (2011) agrees on the importance of urgency to the change process.  He sees a sense of urgency as perhaps the most important factor for effective change, citing it as the force generating a sense of momentum for change to be successful.  Garvin and Roberto (2011) concur, stating that in the absence of a sense of urgency, most people will simply continue doing what they have already done.  Many international schools have a history of going through a quick succession of leaders.  Garvin and Roberto describe that sense of urgency to be even more important in these organizations.  It is easy to resist in these situations and find reasons to condemn the new champion of change.  Urgency helps to create a climate that we are moving forward.  Early in my career I became head of a school that had experience nine heads in its eleven-year history.  As I began to initiate change, and confronted resistance, one teacher bluntly told me, “I’ve outlived five heads before you, I’ll outlive you as well!”  I publicly reminded him of this during my welcome back address four years later.

Encouraging faculty to support change can be a challenge.  There are always people who strongly support a change effort, and were a part of initiating the process.  They are the base, and are the ones who can move things forward.  Unfortunately, they are not the loudest.  The ones we hear from most are those who resist the change.  They are the ones who run to different members of the community to complain the change is destroying the school, they are too overwhelmed, or they are not being listened to.  Garvin and Roberto (2011) describe these behaviors as dysfunctional routines.  Early in my career, I used to pay too much attention to these voices, believing I need to “win” them over.  I’ve since changed my opinion.  Reeves (2209) describes the types of people we find in an organization where change has been initiated.  He says roughly 17% of the people are leaders, people who can be counted on to move the effort forward.  He describes 81% as middle of the road, either followers or fence sitters.  Then, he describes the remaining 2% as the toxic 2%.  Unfortunately, these are the ones we tend to hear the most from, and so tend to give the most attention to.  Alternatively, he says we need to focus our attention on the 17% who are leaders as they will guide the middle 81% forward, leaving the toxic 2% behind.  Heifetz and Linsky (2011) go further.  They believe it is essential to court the middle group.  It is essential they see the change is serious, including the termination of those who constitute the unwilling, so they begin to see a need to get on board.  Fortunately, there are ways to filter out the toxic 2%.  At ISY, we engage in an annual SWOT activity.  During these meetings, various members of the school community have voiced their support for the changes taking place.  While some teachers have voiced resistance, others have voiced their strong support.  In our most recent SWOT analysis, one teacher even described the changes taking place as nothing short of “transformational.”  We hear these same sentiments in our end of year teacher interviews, and our annual community climate surveys, where it is clear the support is strong for the changes taking place across the community.  I have found find ways to hear how the majority feel about a change process can eliminate the power the toxic 2% take on by being the loudest.

I want to be clear and acknowledge change is not easy.  It is hard work, but it is necessary work.  I believe most educators support the idea of change, knowing it means a better education for our students.  Change is also stressful.  According to Heifetz and Linsky (2011), stress is important for change to occur.  It creates an awareness and motivation for moving forward.  In fact, they indicate complaints of stress around change are a good thing.  It is an indication something is happening, people are being asked to act differently, and are moving forward.  I personally believe stress is important, but we need to balance the stress and put it into perspective while not falling back onto complacency.  We owe it to our students to be constantly learning, to be in a hurry to provide them the best education they deserve.

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

References

Fullan, M. (2013). The six secrets of change. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Garvin, D. and Roberto, M. (2011). Change Through Persuasion. In: On Change Management. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, pp.17-34.

Heifetz, R. and Linsky, M. (2011). A Survival Guide for Leaders. In: On Change Management. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, pp.99-118.

Kotter, J. (2011). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. In: On Change Mangement. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, pp.1-16.

Reeves, D. (2009). Leading change in your school. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


The Fortunate Few

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The Fortunate Few

There are many reasons my wife, Kirstin, and I decided to make international education a career following the initial two-year experience we had in 1992 when we took a leave of absence from our teaching positions in the US.  USA Today recently ran an article (May 6, 2019) describing the many benefits of international school teaching, including low teacher / student ratios, great resources, time to prepare for lessons and collaborate with colleagues, and respect as a professional.  Certainly, these played into our thoughts when we decided to completely abandon the security of those jobs back home in exchange for the life of international nomads.  There was something more though; something a bit more personal.  As we observed the quality of education the students we were teaching in international education were receiving, we realized we wanted these same experiences for our own children.  At that point, we only had one child, still less than a year old, but our hopes for what her schooling would be like were quickly shaped by what we experienced.

Twenty-six years and four children later, I can clearly state our children have had amazing experiences.  Imagine what it was like for my oldest daughter, Kaija, when she was in kindergarten in Sumatra, Indonesia.  Each week, students were introduced to a new letter.  They traced the letter, experimented with the sound of the letter, and explored words that were related to that letter.  That may not sound all that unique until I tell you what happened during “E” week.  Kaija went to school and found there was a young elephant there waiting to meet the students.  Why? Because elephant starts with “E.”

The educational benefits my children received go beyond cute little experiences like “E” for elephant.   The resources available usually means schools can provide some of the best instruction available.  My youngest daughter, Anna, was an incredibly shy youngster.  Yet, she had an amazing third grade teacher who was able to pull her out of her shell and instill her with confidence to the point where she was taking responsibility for her own learning, and publicly sharing what she had learned.  I would find this amazing for any third grader.  In Anna’s case, it shaped her as a confidant learner for the rest of her life.  The ability to attract incredibly talented teachers like that third grade teacher made a difference.

All three of my daughters have walked away from an international education as exemplary writers.  I can’t really explain why – perhaps it was because of smaller class sizes, meaning more meaningful feedback, or access to resources and curriculum that emphasized more clarity around the learning process – but, all three daughters are able to research, plan, and write at a level well beyond what I could do at their age, and perhaps beyond what I can do now.  I feel very privileged that to this day they will sometimes request my feedback on something they have written, and I’m always blown away by what they have produced.

International school students also have amazing opportunities to develop lifelong friendships with students from around the world, making their perception of the world a much more manageable one than many other people would have.  My middle daughter Sadie is a perfect example of this.  Though she has been out of high school for a while now, she still communicates daily with friends around the world.  She has also created her own Thanksgiving tradition, inviting friends she has made from different countries to join her each year in what is truly a multicultural Thanksgiving holiday.

Even beyond the academics though, there is something else, something that I found truly incredible about international education.  I try to put my finger on what it is exactly, and it changes a bit for me from time to time.  In the end though, I find it boils down to two things.  First, I’m in awe of what can only be described as an amazing love for learning I find in students from international schools.  There is a true commitment to doing their very best, a willingness to work hard, and a simple passion for being a part of their school community.  I saw this in all of my children, but it is most apparent in my son.  Max came to us a bit later in his life.  At age nine, he had minimal exposure to education, and what he had was not the most pleasant.  I remember the first day he attended our school, he was so angry at me, and did not want to go.  Yet, he came home that day with a smile on his face, and told me he loves school.  After three years, that feeling has not changed.  He gets up every day excited about school, and can’t seem to get enough opportunity to learn.  He speaks about his teachers as though they are teaching only to him.  As a result, the progress he has made in a brief period of time is nothing short of incredible.

The second incredible thing, and perhaps most important, about international education is community.   I’ve never seen anything like it.  International schools are the center of life for so many people from so many different cultures for the period of time those people are in a location.  Because the school is the center of their lives, the children are the center of their lives as well; not just one’s own children, but everyone’s children.  I’ve always believed children learn best in an environment where they have unconditional support from a community.  We’ve found international schools to come as close as possible to that existing.

I think it is easy for those of us who experience this international education to take it for granted after a while.  It becomes the norm, and we can easily forget not everyone gets to experience what our children are experiencing.  The reality is, our children are the fortunate few.  I was reminded of that this past week when I joined three members of our faculty in visiting a rural village in the mountains of Shan state in Myanmar.  The school there is one our school, The International School Yangon, will be sponsoring in partnership with United World Schools (UWS).  This particular village has only had a school servicing 70 grade 1 – 4 students for a bit over a decade, though conditions are fairly dismal.  Large gaps between the boards that make up the walls mean the mountain breeze and red dust blow throw the three-room building fairly constantly.  There were minimal observable resources or furniture the day we visited.  In fact, the only play items noted were the balls and jump ropes we brought with us.  As for teachers, when available, they are first year teachers with minimal training assigned by the government.  They tend to last for relatively short periods though due to the remoteness of the village and not speaking the local language.  UWS hopes to address some of these issues by working with the village to build a new building and train local teachers.  Through engaging the village, we hope they’ll achieve a sustainable long-term impact on the learning for children in this village.

While we hope to make difference through our work with UWS, it is not the same as what has become a norm or our own children.  In fact, very few students in the world get to experience what we consider to be the norm.  I think this is important for us to remember.  At ISY, we strive to develop learners who will be a force for positive change in the world.  We’ve decided to pursue this vision by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals as a lens through which we approach everything we do.  In doing this, we plan to look at topics like poverty and education, the causes, impact, and possibilities for change.  Our mission is to be a community of compassionate global citizens.  By exploring topics like this, we believe we can make great strides in our mission and toward our vision.  In the long run, hopefully more students in the world can someday experience the norm my children were able to experience through an international education.  Is it a long shot?  Could be, but these are the things that are worth striving for.

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

The Compassionate School

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The Compassionate School

I felt a sense of incredible pride when The International School Yangon (ISY) opened its doors to students for the 2018-19 school year on 15 August. Last year, ISY worked closely with consultant John Littleford at redefining who we are as a school. I have to be honest and say I fully anticipated the process would result in a simple tweaking of the mission that was in place when the process began. I was pleasantly surprised when the process led us toward a rethinking of who we are as a school and what is important to us. A new mission emerged, one that I think is incredibly daring and bold and that gives thought to the kind of school we want to be and to what is important to us as a community. This year, for the first time, we started school with this new mission in place. I felt incredible pride in what we had accomplished and how we have defined ourselves.

I firmly believe the mission statement of a school is its promise. It is a statement of commitment to our families about what we do for students at our school and the kind of people we hope students will evolve into by spending time in our classrooms, interacting with our teachers, engaging with our curriculum, and exploring the opportunities we provide. The new ISY mission statement reads, The International School Yangon is a community of compassionate global citizens. It is very simple and to the point. Yet, I find the words to be rich in meaning. Several of the words stand out. For example, the word community speaks to the environment we share at ISY and how we are all a part of a common purpose and share certain beliefs. For me though, the word that stands out strongest is compassionate.

When we speak about what it means to be a compassionate school, we are talking about taking learning to a whole new level. Educational researchers Carol Ann Tomlinson and Michael Murphy state that, “compassion suggests we understand and care about what another person feels, but do not attempt to feel it ourselves. In that way, compassion…is more likely to lead to action…because it calls on us to be kind and to see the need for action rather than to simply experience the feelings of another.” This is at the heart of why I see our mission as being so bold. Our mission commits us to working with our students to go beyond simply having empathy for others, or raising funds because we feel sad for another’s situation. Instead, it commits us to strive to “understand others and to learn from them.” It is a call to make the world a better place for all.

Another bold part of our mission statement is the complete lack of terms like “lifelong learner,” or “academic excellence.” This is by design. As we explored what we want for our students, we realized we want them to be more than learners. We want the learning to be meaningful and purposeful. As we develop compassion we begin to see how our learning can make a difference and contribute to the world where we live as global citizens. In this sense, learning is the process that contributes to the outcome our mission commits us to.

I’m looking forward to the year ahead. As a school community, we will be exploring further what it means to be a compassionate school. We’ve designed a vision statement and strategic teams to support our mission as we strive to make this mission a live one. We want it to resonate for every member of our community so that it really is a guiding statement that drives everything we do.

 

Tomlinson, C. and Murphy, M. (2018). The empathetic school. Educational Leadership, 75(6), p.23.

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

What is that Reggio thing?

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What is that Reggio thing?

The receding tide laps gently at our feet, while wet sand is left behind to caress with a coolness that contrasts sharply with the heat of the piercing sun reflecting off the Bay of Bengal. My ten year old son, Max, kneels beside a tidal pool formed next to a large rock jutting out from the earth. His hands move slowly through the water, attempting to grasp the tiny fish swimming there. He exclaims aloud with each miss, confidant a simple change in technique will bring greater success and then tries again. Eventually, his attention is diverted to a piece of Styrofoam bouncing atop the waves. He runs to it, picks it up, and quickly shapes it into a disk of sorts. He sends it gliding through the air and chases after it. I hear his laughter between crashes of the waves as he moves father down the beach.

Meanwhile, my seventeen-year-old daughter, Anna, slowly makes her way along the beach, stopping from time to time picking up shells and stones. She marvels at the designs and colors appearing on each one, comparing them in some cases to familiar scenes and objects. She discusses them with my wife, Kirstin, asking questions about what she sees more as something to think about rather than something she truly seeks a response to. At one point, she stops to watch a hermit crab in the sand. She pulls out her iPhone and takes a photograph of the patterns it leaves behind, maximizing this bit of technology to capture an image for later consideration. Kirstin keeps walking along the shoreline, occasionally picking up a piece of wood, some stones, or other items she wants to bring back with her for students to use in her Reggio inspired classroom.

Walking along, watching this, I find myself thinking about the ideals of Reggio Emilia. I was recently in a meeting where I was asked, “What is this Reggio thing?” The speaker continued, “I assume its Italian. Is it?” I had smiled. Yes, it is Italian, but in a sense, that is immaterial. Reggio Emilia is a town in Italy. Re-emerging from the ashes of World War Two, the citizens there committed themselves to the idea of community involvement in educating the child and an image of each child as having their own potential and resources that are stimulated by an environment that solicits the interests and curiosity of the child. The Reggio experience is not one that can be duplicated, rather it is a philosophy that inspires us to think differently about children, how they learn, how we interact with them, and their individual reality.

Reggio inspired learning is something that resonates with Kirstin and I. Before we had every actually heard of Reggio Emilia, our thinking had begun to align with it, and the way we raised our own children was something that would fall into Reggio inspired thinking. Early on, as parents, we realized we didn’t help our children if we did everything for them, or solved their problems for them. This was a difficult concept to accept. When our children were small there was a real desire to protect them from the big bad world. At some point, we realized this was a disservice, and we began to step back, encouraging them to solve things on their own. We would watch as they sometimes failed, or made mistakes, but then respect these attempts at their search for more successful approaches. Similarly, we encouraged them to ask questions and challenge ideas, not as a way to find fault, but as a way to seek deeper understanding and to look for ways to contribute and make a difference. We also encouraged them to interact with their environment and learn from it, whether that environment was a city street, or the woods around our cabin. There is something to explore and opportunities to learn in the world around us. When we first came across the philosophy of Reggio Emilia, it was a natural fit for us. It was a framework that gave coherence to many of the things we believed in.

My friend and colleague, Mike Simpson, speaks passionately about the Reggio Emilia inspired experience. He describes it as being about the rights of the child, and specifically the right of each child to explore and to learn. He says when you begin to think about learning in these terms, it changes the way you approach education. You no longer ask the question, “Why do we have to do this?” and begin to instead ask, “How can we best support the learning for this child?” It isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it does speak to a climate that places more value on the individual subjectivity of each student and the idea of supporting their learning rather than emphasizing conformity as the means to a successful learning experience.

In many ways, when I think about the Reggio inspired experience, I think about our youngest students when they first come to school. They seem full of awe and wonder. They constantly interact with their environment, inventing play in everything they do. As author George Couros says, “learning happens at any time, and all the time.” The Reggio inspired experience is one that capitalizes on this, pursues it, and promotes it. Students become aware of their own well-being and it becomes our role to support them in taking responsibility for it.

Continuing our way down the beach, Max has moved on from his Styrofoam disk. He collects a variety of different lengths of bamboo. He draws a line in the sand. Standing behind it, he begins throwing the bamboo, as though they are spears, watching as they glide through the air and plant themselves in the sand. I ask what he is dong, and he explains he is trying to figure out which length of bamboo flies better. He asks me to try. As my results differ from his, we begin to question the impact of weight, as well as characteristics of the thrower. We continue on like this until again, the environment provides another distraction, and Max heads off to pursue something new.

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

Reflections on Progress

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Reflections on Progress

Last week I had an opportunity to join our seventh grade class on a Week Without Walls (WWW) experience to Hpa-An, an area several ours drive to the east of Yangon. Before going any further with this blog, I want to comment on the overall experience I had. Our faculty was wonderful! I was thoroughly impressed with how cognizant they were of the developmental level of seventh graders and the effort made to understand student needs and appropriately engage students in thinking about the experiences they had. Similarly, I’m convinced these were some of the nicest seventh graders I’ve come across. They were diligent in trying to make sure all were included, in trying new things, and in expressing appreciation for the efforts of others. These WWW experiences really are unique. Several times during the trip I found myself lamenting the fact such things didn’t happen when I was a youngster. The overall benefits seem so powerful and enduring.

The second day of the trip found us bicycling as a group through the countryside. In many ways the experience was a bit surreal. A morning rain meant there were puffs of small clouds hovering over royal green rice paddies spread out as far as the eye could see. Occasional buttes poked skyward from the ground in a haphazard fashion, reflecting slivers of sunshine, while atop some of the buttes golden pagodas paid credence to the role of Buddhism in the region. The beauty of it all struck me. Just as impressive though was the level of engagement with the environment. Individual farmers – children, adults, even an elderly woman – toiled in the rice paddies, working by hand to ensure a thriving crop. Wagons pulled by bulls made their way along the muddy roads, cows meandered along the roadside, boys shepherded goats and cattle, and homes made of natural material were spotted across the land.

I found this scene to be somehow calming. It seemed natural, in a sense wholesome. Life seemed to be moving along in this remote corner of the world in the same way it had most likely done for centuries. A lifestyle was lived completely dependent on the same tools, traditions, and dependence on the land as it had been for generations. As an outside observer looking in, I was conscious of the fact I was probably witness to the last remnants of living in this manner. Already, indications of progress and change were beginning to seep through. Evidence of plans to widen the road and pave it was everywhere with trees being removed and markers placed. Plastic waste had begun to collect around shrubbery, trees, and other natural collection points. Simultaneously, signs for mobile carriers dotted the roadside to entice the occasional traveler. It was beginning to appear as though the past would be pushed aside to make way for the benefits and pitfalls of progress, and I found myself questioning in my own mind the gains progress brings.

This is not the first time I have questioned the tide of progress. In 1992, my wife, Kirstin, and I moved to Romania to teach at the American School of Bucharest (Now the American International School of Bucharest). This was our first overseas experience and we were amazed at the life we observed there. I often said to friends back in the U.S. that each time I stepped off the plane in Bucharest I felt I was stepping through a time tunnel. This was a place where electricity was in short supply, traffic lights were turned off at 5:00 PM and never turned on during weekends due to the lack of traffic, and milk was still delivered in a horse and wagon. Outside of Bucharest, you were more likely to see the highway blocked by a heard of sheep than by traffic. At one point in time, while hiking, we met an old man dressed in handmade leather clothes and boots who told us the last time he had seen a foreigner in the area was when the Nazis were there during World War II. In many ways, life seemed simple there, and we were in awe of what we were fortunate enough to experience.

We lived in Bucharest for five years. During this period, there was rapid progress throughout the country. New restaurants opened up, medical care improved, and there was greater access to modern amenities. That said, there was a sense of great loss as well. By the time we left, we no longer had that sense of going through a time tunnel. Many of the types of experiences we had were no longer available. Similarly, the improvements that were most apparent were not necessarily gains for everyone. One time during this period, we had lunch with a Romanian family. I asked them how they felt about the changes since communism. As an American, I anticipated they would appreciate the changes and the progress made by the country. Instead, what I heard was despair. The father told me, in the beginning there was great hope. Everyone believed life would improve. Instead, it improved for some, but for most it got worse. He told me under communism they didn’t have much, but at least they always had enough. Now, he could not provide for his family on a daily basis. He indicated this was true for many others. He believed they had traded away their way of life for an empty dream.

This sense of despair was a bit of a shock to my system. Coming to Bucharest, I believed people there would welcome progress with open arms. In my mind, everyone would want what we had. I began to ask more people their thoughts on progress, and often heard a similar sentiment. I also began to pick up on a certain level of resentment toward foreigners, especially Americans. For some, this resentment seemed to stem from a belief somehow certain promises had been made but were left unfulfilled. For others, there was resentment over attempts by other countries to control the flow of progress by making threats around things like MFN status if Romanians didn’t conform to standards imposed by other countries. For most though, there was simply a sense there had been too high a price for progress, that too much of the traditional way of doing things had been given up. In short, they had experienced a loss of cultural identity in the name of progress.

Riding my bike on muddy roads around Hpa-An, I experienced a sense of déjà vu. I couldn’t help but feel I’ve been down this road before. It is such a shame in so many ways. While I understand the drive for progress, there is also so much to be gained by maintaining certain aspects of a more traditional way of life. It is interesting. Things like the WWW experience we provide for students are a means of making sure contact is made with that way of life and an effort is made to honor it and appreciate it. That said, I believe we need to somehow make an effort to make sure the pitfalls of progress don’t overpower the gains and in the process lay waste to the magic and beauty of what came before.

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

Meanderings on Attachment

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Meanderings on Attachment

“There are two seasons in Minnesota – winter and road construction.” I reminisce on this old phrase as I sit in traffic on 35W between Minneapolis and our home base in Duluth. This is a segment of highway that should be flying along at 70 mph, with nothing more than a possible deer running across the road to slow things down. Yet here I sit, staring at the line of green fir trees bordering the shoulder on a warm day in July, trying to exercise some level of patience. The summer is almost over for us. Soon we will be returning to the school we work at in Yangon. There is still so much we want to do before we return – people we want to see and experiences we want to have. Staring at that line of trees, I avoid thinking of what I could be doing if I weren’t sitting in traffic. That would be completely self-defeating.

One of the things we still plan to do before summer is over is take the family to see a production of Billy Elliot at the Duluth Playhouse. The whole family is together this summer, so it seems like the perfect opportunity to do things like this. With one daughter out of college, one in college, and another who is a senior, I’m not sure how many more summers we’ll all be together for things like this. This summer they are home though, I think partially because they want to get to know Max. He joined our family last fall, and we received legal guardianship of him in February. Our two older daughters had never met him other than through Skype. This summer, they were discovering what it meant to have a brother added to the family.

I had just purchased tickets to Billy Elliot while we were in Minneapolis. We were at a mall, where my wife was busy checking on sales of things that were a perfect bargain, whether we needed them or not. A bench at the entrance to the store seemed designed for waiting spouses. In fact, I wasn’t the only one sitting there. I pulled out my phone. After a quick check of email and news headlines, I browsed the website to purchase tickets to the musical. A number of evenings were sold out, so I exhaled loudly when I managed to snatch up five of six seats in one row for one of the final evening performances.

The car inches forward. Music is playing, but is more background noise than anything. My wife has her seat laying all the way back. The rhythm of her breathing tells me she is asleep. I sit up straight, suddenly more focused. How many tickets did I buy? Five? I shake my head. I did it again. With Max added to the family, we are now six. This has happened on several occasions. We go to a restaurant, and I tell the host we need five seats, and then realize we need six. I count five lifejackets for the boat, and then as we pull away from shore realize another is needed. As traffic is still standing still, I pull out my phone and check the theatre website. Great! That sixth seat in the row is still available. I quickly purchase it before the car inches forward again.

The first time I forgot to include Max in our family numbers equation I felt terrible. I thought it somehow reflected a lack of attachment to him on my part, or subliminal lack of acceptance of him into our family. I don’t think that anymore. Instead, I’m clear in my own mind it is more a reflection of my age and where I am in life. We had never expected a “Max” in our lives. When he came to live with us, we were a fully established family of five, planning for lives as empty nesters in two years. Forgetting him wasn’t about a lack of attachment; it simply reflected the mind of someone whose life had been going in one direction before being knocked into another by a nine-year-old boy we hadn’t ever expected. It was simply a matter of getting used to something different. Attachment is something else entirely.

I’m not much of an athlete. Somehow, in my formative years I never developed the hand – eye coordination essential to most sports. In a related manner, I never learned how to put my body into it when throwing a ball, hitting with a bat, or connecting with a variety of pieces of sports equipment. As a youngster though, I discovered I had been blessed with one bit of athletic ability, I could run at a reasonably fast speed. This kernel of knowledge propelled me to pursue running as the singular sport I believed I could excel at. Over the years, I ran in a number of 10Ks, and even a couple of marathons. With time, running became the singular sport for which I developed some level of passion. It became the means for me to stay in shape, to focus my attention, a solace for me to escape and think things through in my own mind. One of the first things I did when moving to a new country was to find a route to run so I could develop the routine that had become a focus of my life over the years. It was on one of my first runs in Myanmar that I came across Max.

There is heaviness in the air in Yangon in August. It builds up throughout the day making it seem like you are maneuvering through a wall of water each time you step outside. At times, it will culminate in a refreshing rainfall leaving behind a few brief hours of clarity and free movement. At other times, it simply dissipates into the night, with the wall being built anew the falling day with each passing hour. Avoiding the wall becomes the goal of each daily run. This is accomplished by running early – as early as possible. First light is around 5:00 AM.

Leaving our home one of those first mornings, I pursued a slow, steady pace along our, narrow, pock marked asphalt road. Running by a gold domed monastery where the sound of brass gongs broke the morning silence, then downhill past elegant mansions and colonial homes, I finally crossed a major intersection to arrive at a park that bordered one of the city lakes. These parks live daily changes in purpose. Mid afternoon and early evening they play host to young lovers seeking some time alone under umbrellas and behind trees, while night is party time with young people playing music and drinking. Mornings though are a time of sport. A group of women gather in the parking lot to dance aerobically to pop music, and young men with muscular physics make use of the permanent exercise equipment. For my part, I joined in the line of people walking and / or running along the paved trail that snaked its way along the lake and through the park.

I was about ten minutes into my run when I noticed the runners and walkers taking brief steps off the trail ahead of me. It was unclear to me why they were doing this. Coming closer, I saw a small mound of flesh in the middle of the pavement. At first, I wasn’t clear what I was seeing, and then realized it was two small boys with arms and legs wrapped around each other in a knot, fast asleep on the cool ground. They were both dressed in worn discolored shorts. One had torn t-shirt on, while the other wore a collared button down shirt absent the buttons.   They were both filthy, and I found myself wondering what they were doing there. Did they live close by and had sought refuge from the summer heat of their home, or was their existence somehow a more permanent situation? Why were people simply stepping around them as though they were some sort of mild irritation? I slowed to a trot as I went past the boys, following the lead of those ahead of me. What I didn’t realize as I went past was one of the boys appearing before me was a street boy who would come to live in our home in a few short months, and in less than a year would join our family as the boy we would come to call Max.

The exact story of how Max came to live with us is one I’ll save for another time. I will say it was something unplanned and unexpected. A decision made on a whim, which has changed our lives, for the better, forever. The first several weeks he was with us were amazing, almost surreal. We weren’t exactly sure what we were doing with him at that point, or even what future we might have with him. He very quickly became a part of our lives though. He would get up early with me each morning and go running with me. Preparing breakfast followed this. During the day he would come by the school we worked at and hang out drawing pictures, talking to people, and helping out. Afternoons were filled with playing soccer, riding bikes, and helping out with various tasks, while evenings were filled with table games and watching television. Though we struggled with his inability to speak English, we found ways to communicate as he quickly fit into our family routines. As a result, it was a shock when this came to a sudden end.

Throughout these first weeks, Max had never asked us to visit the park where he had been living when we first met him. Out of the blue, one afternoon he asked, through an interpreter, if we could go for a walk in the park that evening. Sure, I said, though it would need to be late evening, as the school holiday concert was that evening.

“The whole family?” He asked.

“Sure.”

“Even Joey?” Our dog.

“Yes, even Joey.”

Max floated through the rest of that day. He was constantly hugging us at every opportunity. We attended the concert that evening. The stars twinkled in the sky and a soft breeze waffled through the air as the sound of children singing permeated our schoolyard. At one point I looked around for Max. He was sitting quietly with his head leaned against my assistant. She had her arm around him. All seemed well in the world of Max.

As soon as the concert was over, Max reminded me of my promise to go to the park. We went home and gathered together the family – my wife, our youngest daughter, Joey, and my daughter’s boyfriend. We strolled down our block, crossed the road to the park, and then made our way along the lake. At one point, a dirty boy in clothes dotted with tears and stains, clearly a bit older than Max, approached us. Max spoke to him, then asked me in his few words of English if he could give this boy some money. I handed over some loose change. The boy left, and we continued on our way. We arrived back home. Max was smiling, chattering and constantly hugging us. The excursion to the park had been a success.

Max and I settled into a short television show before bed. At this point, I can’t remember what the show was, nor does it really matter. What I remember is a feeling of fulfillment. A sense that somehow this boy, who had become a part of our lives, belonged with us. Everything just seemed to fit. As the show came to a close, I told Max it was almost bedtime. This had become a time where we read simple picture books, and practiced English words he had been exposed to.

Max turned to me and spoke very aggressively. “No. No bed!”

Caught off guard, I said, “What? Say that again?’

“No! No bed! No happy here!”

Again, I questioned what he was saying. Suddenly, he began to hit at me with two fists. He became very tearful and started to say over and over he wasn’t happy. He wanted to return to the park. I didn’t understand and tried to question him. He became incoherent, hitting at me more, and more loudly saying he wanted to return to the park. He didn’t want to live with us any longer. I took Max into my arms and held him, trying to get him to calm down. Trying to understand what was happening. He struggled and resisted. Finally, I gave up trying to understand. I carried him to his room, where I laid with him, holding him, until he finally settled down and fell asleep.

Once Max was asleep, I sat down on the floor next to his bed. Exhausted from holding him, my arms resting on my knees, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. What had suddenly changed? Where had this come from? Max didn’t have to live with us. He wasn’t a prisoner. That had always been a clear message from us to him. Still, I wanted to understand what was suddenly happening, where this change had come from. I slowly fell off to sleep next to Max’s bed, not wanting to leave. Somehow, I felt this was a time he needed us, though I didn’t understand why.

We approached the morning with a bit of trepidation. Max awoke surlier than we had ever seen him. Our Toyota Land Cruiser was smaller than usual and the route to school was twice the distance with Max in the back seat. Every pothole was accentuated, as we seemed to inch along. At school, our head of security met us, and I asked him to translate as we tried to understand what was happening.

Max stated he wanted to return to the park to live. My memory at this moment is of him sitting in a large leather chair. His head hung forward, and there were tears running down his cheeks. A part of me wanted to simply hug him, though I held back not really sure what was happening. I said that was fine, if that was what he really wanted, but did he understand we cared about him? Yes, he understood. It didn’t matter. He wanted to go. This just didn’t seem real. What happened that had caused such a rapid change? We had clearly started to feel a sense of attachment to Max. Was it really possible he didn’t feel the same? I asked my assistant if she would talk to Max, and see if she could figure out where all of this was coming from.

Right from the beginning, my assistant seemed to connect with Max. When he stopped by school, he would usually stop and chat with her first. He drew pictures for her, and talked about her regularly. On this occasion, she pulled Max aside at her desk and talked with him. He squatted next to her chair, speaking animatedly. In a short period, she brought Max to my office and sat him down. She explained the issue wasn’t that Max wanted to leave. He actually wanted to stay with us. He was feeling torn though. When he saw his friend at the park the night before he had realized how much he missed his friends there. She explained for the past year and a half, these other boys had been like his family. He felt he was somehow letting them down by being with us instead of them.

I thought about this. It seemed completely reasonable Max would feel attached to these boys, and he would feel a need to be with them. Max could return to the streets if that were what he wanted. Perhaps there was a workable alternative though. I suggested that Max stay with us. He could invite one or two of his friends over whenever he was feeling a need to be with them. He would just need to let us know in advance. This was translated to Max. He asked a couple of questions. As I responded to each, a smile came to his face. He jumped out of his chair and wrapped his arms around my neck. In a way, I couldn’t believe this was what had caused the melt down of the night before. There it was though.

It seemed we had achieved a livable solution to this problem. That afternoon, Max and I went to the park. He sought out his friend, who came to our home the next day and stayed for dinner. The experience we had the night of the holiday concert turned out to be only the beginning though. It seemed to trigger some sort of inner struggle for Max. For the next several months, he would have days when he was the most fantastic boy in the world. Then, suddenly, he would erupt into verbal and physical struggles where I would again have to hold him until he went to sleep, and often spend the night by his bed. At these times, we would find ourselves wondering what we had involved ourselves with, and questioned if it was something we could continue with. At times we felt we were walking on eggshells, wondering when the next episode would occur. When I was younger, before I went into teaching, I had worked in a residential facility with emotionally disturbed children. Many of these children struggled with issues related to abandonment and a lack of attachment. They regularly acted out physically, especially if they began to feel close to someone, out of fear of the relationship. After each episode with Max, we would take him the next day to someone to translate. Invariably, there was some reasonable reason for his behavior that was often frustrated by a lack of ability to communicate with us. Still, his behavior was reminding me more and more of the children I had worked with many years ago. When I was younger, I could deal with that type of behavior. I even appreciated the challenge of it. I’m much older now though, and both my wife and I began to wonder how much we could handle. That said, we were also starting to feel torn. With each episode we felt we were beginning to understand Max more. His protective layers were slowly peeling away and we were slowing finding ourselves more emotionally tied into him. We reached a point where we began to feel we needed to either be all in with this boy, or we needed to find an alternative solution for him.

We gradually came to know Max’s mother. She lives in the north of the country, and was clear she was unable to take Max back and care for him. With this knowledge, and given how much we had come to care for him, we made a decision to seek legal guardianship of Max. We were still struggling with some of his behavior, and still had questions about his ability to completely attach to us, but we began to believe we could make it work. We had to appear in court on three separate occasions. The first time both Max and his mother had to attend. This was one of the first interactions Max had with his mom in approximately two years. He sat and talked with her, but didn’t show any real emotion. When the judge questioned his mother, she described how her husband had passed away and she had found herself alone with five sons – Max being the youngest. Blind in one eye, she had struggled to support her sons, and gradually had sent each off to work in different labor arrangements. She no longer knew where her two oldest sons were, and had lost knowledge of where Max was when he ran away from his work situation over a year and a half ago. She acknowledged she loved her son, but couldn’t care for him. He had already been dead to her until we found him, and she was happy to have him live with us. Max listened to all of this. He wrapped my wife’s arm around himself and moved closely to her, holding her hand tightly. I remember watching him as all of this was going on. I was happy to see him seeking solace from my wife, but again I wondered about his ability to attach. His detachment from his mother didn’t fit with my worldview of mother / child relationships.

A funny thing happened after we went to court. We don’t know why, but Max changed. It was like a switch went off inside of him and he realized this situation was for good. We weren’t turning back. We watched him suddenly become more content, and the behavior challenges gradually diminished. Starting school meant the creation of routines and development of relationships with other kids other than street kids. This also seemed to settle him, and we saw him become more comfortable in being a part of our family. This doesn’t mean our questions regarding his level of attachment changed. In the months that followed, we still experienced occasional issues that made us wonder about this, but the behavior challenges seemed to go away.

This summer has been fantastic! Why? English! Max is in the U.S. with us, and the exposure to constant English has caused his language skills to take off. For me, the most important aspect of this has been the ability to begin exploring different issues with him, like attachment. Max has a real affinity for fishing. He loves to go fishing for trout and through the summer we have spent hours at different fishing holes along the north shore of Minnesota. During these times we talk. The other day I asked him about his mom and how he felt when he saw her in court. He was initially reticent to talk about it, asking me why I want to talk about these things. Finally he said, “You know, I love my mom. I know she loves me. But, I don’t like her. I can’t explain it. Maybe when I’m twenty I can explain it.”

We’ve also talked about some of the issues he had during the months before we went to court. He has explained to me that he loves us, but he was also angry with us for a while. He said that if we hadn’t come along, he would have stayed with his friends on the streets. Now, they are gone and he wonders about them and worries about what has happened to them. He tells me he is no longer angry, but he still thinks about his friends.

Having the ability to communicate with Max has made a big difference. We are now able to communicate our thoughts and feelings. He is able to do the same. We still have issues with him, like any parent. We are also beginning to understand attachment from his perspective is a more difficult concept than it is for us. He’s had many different types of relationships in his life, and it seems he is trying to fit them all together and make sense of them. What is important for us right now is we love him. We know he loves us. And we are all working very hard to be successful.

I just need to remember to think of six now instead of five.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog